The FingerReader wearable device developed by MIT researchers can scan and read text in real-time.

Braille is the standard tactile reading tool used by the blind for printed text, and the system is credited for boosting literacy levels among the visually impaired. However, many books and materials are still not available in Braille. There are screen reading devices in the market that are able to scan text from these materials, but they are unwieldy, and it takes some time for their text-to-speech software to process the text before the user hears the words.

Now, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have announced that they have developed a wearable prototype device that can scan printed text and read text out loud in real-time, according to an article in the Associated Press.

The FingerReader is a 3D printed ring-like device worn on the index finger. It has a small camera on top which scans printed text and monitors finger movements. A special character-recognition software identifies each word the finger points to, and a voice synthesizer reads it aloud instantaneously.

In their study, the researchers wrote, “Visually impaired people report numerous difficulties with accessing printed text using existing technology, including problems with alignment, focus, accuracy, mobility and efficiency. We present a finger worn device that assists the visually impaired with effectively and efficiently reading paper-printed text.”

The index-finger worn device is “a lot more flexible, a lot more immediate than any solution that they have right now,” Dr. Pattie Maes, founder and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces research group, who developed FingerReader, told the AP.

In designing the device, the researchers conducted focus group discussions with visually impaired people who use scanners and smartphones to access printed text on a daily basis, and found out issues they encountered in using these existing devices. The users said flatbed scanners cannot fit some reading materials on the scanner glass. Mobile devices were more favored because they were portable, but taking snapshots using the built-in camera was still considered tedious. They also complained that processing by these devices take several minutes.

Taking all these into consideration, the researchers decided to make a finger-worn gadget with hardly any buttons and just a single high-resolution camera to track finger movements. If the user veers away from a text line, tactile feedback is provided by two vibration motors embedded in the 3D printed case. Auditory cues alert the user at the beginning and the end of reading passages. A novel-tracking based algorithm extracts text locally and sequentially, rather than in whole text blocks and pages like many existing devices use. This makes continuous, real-time audio output possible. In their trials, processing only takes 20 milliseconds instead of the usual several minutes of waiting time.

Roy Shilkrot, co-developer of the device, told AP that FingerReader can read “papers, books, magazines, newspapers, computer screens and other devices,” although users of touch screen devices should disable the touch screen functionality for FingerReader to scan text on the screen properly.

An estimated 285 million people worldwide suffer from visual impairment. The FingerReader device can help them gain access to a greater number of learning resources and contribute greatly to their quality of life. It could complement Braille in leveling the playing field for the visually impaired, especially in countries like the United Arab Emirates, where a disability-inclusive development agenda towards 2015 and beyond is being pushed.